From Our Digital Bookshelf: The Digital Humanities Coursebook by Johanna Drucker

This addition to our Digital Bookshelf series is one that I, a newbie to the Digital Humanities field, read to familiarize myself with the subject. DH is a fairly new and complex, multi-faceted area so when joining Artes Research team as an intern, I knew that I wanted to learn more about how it relates to my previous experience studying and working within the history field. Before reading The Digital Humanities Coursebook: Introduction to Digital Methods for Research and Scholarship by Johanna Drucker, I expected a focus on just that: research and scholarship. While this book certainly focuses on the technicalities and approaches of DH, I was very pleased to find that there was a great emphasis on its application to the cultural heritage sector and, more specifically, museums. The potential for this book to be used in an interdisciplinary context makes it valuable not only to students within a DH program, but also to students, researchers, and teaching staff in humanities disciplines where traditional methods still remain the norm.

The layout and structure of the book are easy to follow and emphasize practice in conjunction with conceptual understandings. Broken up into bite-sized pieces within overarching themes, it is comprehensive without being too ambitious. Drucker starts from zero in each chapter, introducing the foundation and background of each concept thoroughly. From there, she takes time to contextualize these methods by providing ample examples that are relevant to DH from a historical and contemporary frame of reference. This largely comes in the form of exercises.

These exercises follow each section and provide an opportunity for the reader to engage with the explored topic immediately. Perhaps this addition should be expected in such a work, but speaking as a student who has rarely seen this within the humanities field, this attention to the reader appears to acknowledge the reader’s previous and potential grasp of the subject; decisions like this can and should encourage students to continue learning the material. The exercises were engaging and not mindless problems to be solved. Some of these exercises ask the reader to refer to secondary sources, such as exercise #2 in subsection “Cultural Analytics, multi-modal communication, media, and audio mining”:

“Examine the project by Tanya Clement, Hipstas “John A. Lomax and Folklore Data.” What are the ways in which these folklore files from the early 20th century become more useful as a result of the digital interventions? What other kinds of materials do you think would benefit from such research?

Other exercises, such as exercise #3 in subsection “Web presentation formats,” are meant as self-reflections for a student actively involved in a DH project:

“What are the assets you have digitized and how are they organized, described, and named? How will they be used and how much flexibility do you want in your site? Should scholars be able to access the entire set of assets, or only see them in the interpretive frameworks you have created?”

By providing exercises that engage students in different stages of their projects – from research to reflection – the book acts loosely as an instruction book. While some examples are specific, such as the aforementioned exercise #2, other exercises give grounds for a more personalized application of the text.

Several aspects covered in the book stood out to me for their connection to museums, with the most notable being databases, visualizations, and virtual restoration. Having worked on or dealt with these elements in the past, I did not realize at the time that I was engaging with DH methods. In the following paragraphs, I will go into more detail about my experience reading these sections and the points that stood out or made a strong impact on me.

When reading the discussion on the nature of museum databases, I was initially surprised to learn that my taking measurements of accessions and plugging them into PastPerfect, the collection management software, was creating data. To me, this was purely museological protocol and removed from any larger discipline. It was also something done out of an obligation for preservation and for the museum’s personal records. Learning about data creation in this sense has helped me understand that the purpose of certain processes, such as creating structured metadata, transcends internal museological means; cultural heritage materials and their data are used in hackathons, Linked Open Data, independent research, and so much more.

Another important aspect that the book underlines is accessibility when it comes to cultural heritage materials. When we think of accessibility, we commonly think of increasing it, but on the other hand, we also need to consider the ethical implications of sensitive data. The book discusses cases when cultural heritage materials should not be made available to the public. Referencing the Mukurtu platform, an open-source platform for indigenous peoples, Drucker says that:

 “Within many cultures, what can be accessed depends upon the role, class, position, age, or gender of individuals—or the caste or kinship group to which they belong. Taking such considerations into account with regard to data means shifting one’s assumptions away from a single approach and recognizing the degrees of granularity that might need to be built into control of data retrieval, access, or use.”

As most of us have not had the opportunity to work in a cultural heritage institution, we might not be familiar with the intricacies of the ethical context concerning data sharing.  One of the primary concerns of the cultural heritage sector is respecting cultural traditions and memory, thus, the concept of “degrees of granularity” when it comes to data sharing and publishing is a helpful device for those in the sector and for students hoping to secure a career in this sector in the future.

Turning to the discussion on visualizations and virtual restorations, in addition to providing a very thorough introduction to the various types of visualizations and modeling, Drucker also delves deeper, opening a critical discussion about what these approaches offer, but also what the limitations are. Through it all, she emphasizes that digital restorations have brought new opportunities to scholars of built heritage.

Given the cost and time of these visualizations, creators have frequently had to defend the logic of their work. One pioneering modeling project, a 1998 project on Pompeii, asserted that while a visual model cannot recover original experiences, they can be used to prove or disprove hypotheses. Initially finding it interesting that such a point even needs to be explicitly made, it emphasized to me how DH is constantly battling criticism from traditional humanities; issues of virtual accuracy vs material accuracy, sustainability methods, and more are constant concerns. Drucker offers a partial counter to this saying that even still, “our agendas change over time.” Even though a visualization or virtual restoration might not be entirely without flaws or creative freedom, historians and other professionals are working with the knowledge and material they have at that exact given time, just as at any other time in history when creating a narrative.

Books like this are valuable to the DH community and beyond. When studying history for my bachelor’s degree, I would constantly hear students’ concerns of “I don’t know what to do with my degree” and would frequently be asked the age-old question directed toward humanities students “So… you want to teach?” Not many students know of the potential in the DH field, but by incorporating books such as Drucker’s into humanities curricula, opportunities open up for different types of jobs, interdisciplinary research, and more.  As digital humanities becomes more established and engrained in traditional arts curricula, its complexities might feel out of reach and unfamiliar for some students. Without this exposure and challenge of DH, however, the full potential of students in the cultural heritage field remains unrealized. This book is one example of a tool that can bridge students of traditional humanities backgrounds over to DH as they develop the skills they need to push the limits of what can be done with cultural heritage and humanities data.

Johanna Drucker. The Digital Humanities Coursebook : An Introduction to Digital Methods for Research and Scholarship. Routledge, 2021.

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